We left Bikaner at 9am for the long drive to Jaisalmer. It was absolutely freezing. The heater in the Tata turns out not to be working – the dial only turns as far as the blue then sticks fast. Mr Mukesh tried putting on the fan, which came on with a wobbly screech and wafted a fishy, glue-like smell around the cabin, so I turned it off. After an hour my feet had gone numb and I was shivering, so he dug two blankets out of the boot. We draped these over our heads in the local manner and wrapped them around ourselves, hunched over like two old ladies in shawls. Through a grey haze a tiny, pale sun rose into the sky, giving no heat. Then, abruptly at 11am the mistyness began to disperse and the temperature started to climb.
The road to Jaisalmer became more and more arid with each passing hour. Camels browsed on thorn trees and drifts of sand spread out across the road. The colour of the earth changed, from red laterite to beige, but sometimes we would pass an expanse of green foliage with yellow flowers: mustard plants. The oil is used for cooking here. We were frequently overtaken by 4×4 vehicles emblazoned with the names of tour companies, usually sporting a couple of brightly-coloured rucksacks on the roof. Mr Mukesh sticks to a steady 80kmh, and indeed this proves to be wise, since we frequently crash into potholes which feel like they will tear the wheels off. Nevertheless, the Tata soldiers on.
I notice a small silver reservoir stuck to the dashboard; the liquid inside slops whenever we hit a bump. I know Mr Mukesh is vegetarian, and surmise that he must be a Hindu, so perhaps this is some kind of holy water, maybe from the Ganges at Varanasi? I ask him.
“This?” he says, removing the lid and dipping in a finger. “This is agarbatti (incense). Nice smelling.” It turns out to be an air freshener.
We pass a convoy of army trucks coming the opposite way. On the back of each one, as on all Indian trucks, is a colourful stencil saying ‘Horn Please’. Above the offside mudguard is the admonition ‘Wait for Side’, although what this means I have no idea. “Army”, says Mr Mukesh. “Many army in Jaisalmer. Because Pakistan. Pakistan peoples…” he tails off into laughter, shaking his head at the assorted unspoken follies of Pakistan. “Very angry with Indian. Maybe Pakistan army coming to Jaisalmer. Here border is closed, but in Amritsar, Indian side, happy! Smiling! This! Dancing! Pakistan side” – he wipes the grin off his face with a hand and looks stern – “very serious. Not laughing.”
I smile weakly at this rather improbable account of spontaneous merriment, trying to maintain a semblance of diplomatic immunity, and look out of the window at the thorny scrubland that stretches away from us all the way to the border and then on for a thousand miles the other side.
We pass a few isolated truck stops en route, including one where, upon seeing a gora (white, foreigner, long-nosed devil etc) in the passenger seat, the boy sprints towards us while frantically waving his arms so enthusiastically that he almost gets run over. “This place not good,” pronounces Mr Mukesh with a slight wince of distaste. 10 minutes further on we spot a small row of stalls and a sign for the Panihani Restaurant, so we pull in for some lunch. This one is much more laid back, and we are ushered inside and I am handed a greasy menu. An endless squadron of flies circle about the room, one continually landing on the back of my hand as I study the menu. It advertises Nan Stuff, Cheez Nan, Peez Pulao and something called Special Vag. Deciding against the vag, special or otherwise, we settle for Dal Fri (Fried Lentils) and Tandoori Roti. I carefully sterilise my hands with my antibacterial wet wipes, which assure me that they are effective against 99.9% of bacteria. Of course if anywhere was going to be a reservoir of that rogue 0.1% it would be India. Despite my precautions, which leave my hands smelling like a mixture of bathroom cleaner and baby lotion, the boy who brings the roti has a disconcerting habit of carefully folding over each one with his hands before putting them on my tray. A young lad no more than eight years of age takes two stainless steel cups and makes a great show of wiping them repeatedly with a grimy dishcloth tucked into his trousers, while grinning broadly at us all the while. I sip at my Fanta like a maiden aunt at a vicarage tea party, trying not to touch anything. Despite this lingering paranoia, the dal is pretty good.
We reach Jaisalmer in mid-afternoon, entering the usual chaos of Indian traffic before bumping off down a dirt side road towards the Hotel Bharat Villas. It’s functional rather than fancy, and has a rooftop terrace restaurant with a nice view of the fort which dominates the hilltop. The surrounding side streets are full of small mechanics’ workshops which echo to the sound of clanging and hammering until late at night. Small hairy pigs snuffle through piles of rubbish, periodically being chased squealing away by one of the resident dogs. One rubbish pile has pigs, dogs and a solitary cow all contentedly rooting through it. Motorbikes zoom up and down the narrow streets, honking incessantly.
Jaisalmer is unusual in that the fort on the hilltop is part of the town, so rather than pay a couple of hundred rupees to get in (or 100 rupees foreign student discount courtesy of an expired student card), there is no charge to walk around the walled city. The sandstone used in construction here is a pale yellow in colour, and when the desert sun begins to lower in the sky the entire town turns golden. There are many small shops selling the inevitable backpacker-style ‘ethnic’ clothing, some of it traditional, much of it not. This town is used to tourists, so the prices are relatively high; casually asking about a shirt I am quoted 1000 rupees. I bought an identical one in Delhi for 250 (about £3). At sunset the chanting from a temple echoes through the walkways of the old town, the sound mingling with the laughter of children playing cricket with a stick and an old bundle of rags taped into a ball.